Block periodisation for triathletes, explained

It’s only for age-group contenders and elites but, if your body is bulletproof, it can unleash impressive gains

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The traditional periodisation model has been the basis for many an elite and age-grouper’s training for years. In fact, the original theory of sub-dividing your programme into smaller periods and training cycles was first proposed by the Soviet scientist Lev Matveyev back in the 1950s. But it seems the old base–build–peak model is ill-equipped for the demands of competitive triathletes. 

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“A major limitation of the traditional periodisation model is its inability to produce multiple performance peaks over the season,” explains Inigo Mujika, one of the world’s leading sports scientists and triathlon coaches. “Although this isn’t a big problem for long-course athletes taking part in two or three major events per season, it’s a handicap for an elite or high-end age-grouper competing in Olympic-distance tri who’s looking to peak six or seven times a season with little rest in between competitions.”

The traditional model of training is what’s termed a ‘mixed’ model. That means you’re looking to stimulate swim, bike and run at the same time, which is great for the triathlete whose scope to improve is high – beginners and intermediates – but less useful for the advanced athlete seeking marginal gains. That’s because the body can struggle to adapt to several stimuli at once.

Enter block periodisation, which essentially can be defined as when workloads are concentrated with one main focus and are then connected in a series of blocks. Mujika presents a compelling case that advanced age-groupers and elites should seriously think about replacing the traditional model with block periodisation.

“When multiple races are closer together, athletes need to extend their fitness peak instead of trying to achieve a new peak for each race,” says Mujika. “That’s where block periodisation comes in – it has the potential to extend your fitness peak.”

Mujika applied this form of training to propel Spanish female elite Ainhoa Murúa to seventh at the London Olympics. Follow these parameters and it could work for you…

Athlete type

While it’s appropriate for elites who aren’t constrained by time or workload, according to Mujika, “block periodisation is also appropriate for age-groupers with a long training history and/or improvement stagnation”. Renowned coach Joe Friel concurs, stating that well-experienced triathletes who are very fit and competitive within their age-group could benefit. “I’d like to add that block doesn’t eliminate any athletes based on age,” adds Friel.

Three phases

Unlike traditional periodisation, which is generally broken down into four phases – base, build, peak and race – block is broken down into ‘accumulation’, ‘transmutation’ and ‘realisation’, the major change being the distribution of high-intensity work. That’s because, in general, block periodisation concentrates on one type of energy system for the development of specific qualities in each of the three phases.

So, if an athlete is trying to peak for six races a season, they’d work through each of the three phases in the build-up to the competition rather than the restrictive traditional all-year-round model. “The only other type of workout during such a block (other than recovery workouts) is maintenance of the focus workout from the previous block,” says Friel. Essentially, through the three phases you build consecutive fitness rather than trying to improve several parameters at once.

Residual training effect (RTE)

This is the key to block periodisation and predominantly why this form of training only applies to advanced age-groupers and elites. In science circles, this is “the retention of changes induced by systematic workloads beyond a certain time period after the cessation of training” – in layman’s terms, how long you enjoy the fitness benefits of a block of training. This ties in with detraining and is negligible in the traditional model, where each target – be it physical or technical – enjoys some form of focus.

Block proponent Vladimir Issurin suggests that ‘accumulation’ features aerobic endurance work, strength work and some form of technique because, with an advanced athlete, the RTE is 25-35 days. The ‘transmutation’ phase comprises anaerobic and muscular endurance work, the RTE being around 15-23 days. ‘Realisation’ is for top-end gains – we’re talking maximum speed workouts – but these can wear off within five days of cessation.

Workout parameters

“Block is used by elites and top-end age-groupers because they can’t use diverse training as is common with less well-trained athletes, because the ‘density’ of the workouts simply isn’t great enough to produce an adequate improvement,” believes Friel.

“They’re essentially too far apart with diverse training.” With block, they’re repeated several times throughout a single phase. This close proximity elicits greater physical and biological changes that will reward the high-end athlete with greater gains.

As for the exact intensity and volume of each phase, that’s very much an individual thing. “Any kind of training load induces both increasing levels of adaptation and increasing levels of fatigue. These two factors need to be managed to achieve the peak,” says Mujika. “Some athletes are more sensitive to high training volumes, whereas some are more responsive to high training intensity.”

Block periodisation is for battle-hardened bodies because you’re stressing the same few areas rather than focusing on many. But it’s this specificity that, if you can cope with the fatigue, will result in far stronger and more consistent performances than the traditional periodisation model.

(Images: ITU/Delly Carr/Janos Schmidt)

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Has block periodisation helped your times? Let us know in the comments below!